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Splinter Group: The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites)

By Eric Johnson

Summary

The Church of Jesus Christ is the only religious movement in existence today that can be traced directly to Sidney Rigdon, a man who had an intimate relationship with Mormonism founder Joseph Smith. Rigdon left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845 when Brigham Young won a power struggle over several opponents (including Ridgon) to succeed Smith. Later, in 1862, The Church of Jesus Christ was founded by early follower William Bickerton. The church today is located mainly in foreign countries along as well as in the United States, especially in the eastern states. The church holds to two scriptures–the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Mormon–and seeks to convert Native Americans and Hispanics in North, Central, and South America–known as the Seed of Joseph–to this faith. Today it is the second largest splinter group (following the Community of Christ) that claims to follow in the authority of Joseph Smith.

An Overview

Church Name The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites)
Founder William Bickerton (1815-1905)
Date of Founding 1862
Membership About 26,000 (2,700 in United States along with 23,000 in other countries)
Main places of faith Africa, the United States, Canada, and several other countries around the world
Scripture Bible (King James Version) and Book of Mormon
Central location Monogahela, PA
Top leaders 12 Apostles, followed by 70 Evangelists, Elders, Teachers, and Deacons and Deaconesses
Church periodical Gospel News (monthly)
Church’s Main Focus Outreach to Native Americans in North, South, and Central America
Salvation Faith, baptism, repentance, and obedience
Website TheChurchofJesusChrist.org

Founding of the church

On April 6, 1845, Sidney Rigdon (right), a former Disciples of Christ preacher, spoke at a conference and claimed to be the rightful heir of Smith. A leader from The Church of Jesus Christ explained to me in a personal email, “When Joseph Smith was assassinated, Sidney Rigdon should have been the President of the Church until the next election. However Brigham Young usurped unlawful influence to manipulate the Quorum of 12 to elect him as president. This created a schism in the Church.”

After Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith, Rigdon convinced some of the Mormons to leave Illinois and settle near Pittsburgh, PN. Rigdon’s new church was called Church of Christ (Rigdonite) and his followers were called Rigdonites. William Bickerton (1815-1905), who had immigrated to the United States from England and became a coal miner, left the Methodist church and followed Rigdon. He was baptized and became an elder and evangelist in Rigdon’s church, never having met Joseph Smith nor Brigham Young.

Within a couple of years, disagreements between Rigdon and his followers led to the dissolving of the new church. Many ended up following William E. McLellin and Benjamin Winchester, as they followed the leadership of David Whitmer. Bickerton continued following Rigdon, though Rigdon left the church for good in 1847.

Bickerton (left) then became associated with the Utah-based The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Elizabeth, PN from March 1851 to March 1852 and became an elder. However, in 1852, Brigham Young sent representatives to him and told him that he had to teach plural marriage; Bickerton refused and then disassociated himself with the LDS Church. In Green Oak, PN in July 1862, Bickerton began his own church and claimed to be the rightful successor to Smith. In 1875, he convinced several dozen families to move to Kansas, founding the Zion Valley Colony, which later became the town of St. John, Kansas.

Although Bickerton felt the followers of Joseph Smith had become disorganized, he believed his calling was divine. He claimed to have had a vision that put  him on the highest mountain of the earth where he was told that “if I did not preach the gospel I would fall into a dreadful chasm below. . .  I moved with fear, having the Holy Spirit with me.” He did not feel he could return to Methodism because he did not think this denomination taught the true gospel. Hence, “I went ahead preaching repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Some people believed and were baptized.

In 1880, William Cadman succeeded Bickerton as the president of the church; Bickerton had been ousted due to a charge of adultery. Although he claimed innocence, Bickerton was disfellowshiped that same year. although he was never excommunicated. In 1902, Bickerton was reinstated to the church and remained a faithful member until his death three years later.

Another church split took place in 1914 when William Cadman—Bickerton’s successor—said the church should be led by a First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, while others said there should be no First Presidency. The leader of the schism was an apostle named James Caldwell who disagreed with the First Vision of Joseph Smith, even though he taught that Smith was a true prophet who had been inspired to translate the Book of Mormon. Caldwell ended up beginning a new church, the Primitive Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), and his followers became known as Cadmanites. That church was dissolved in the 1970s.

Location of The Church of Jesus Christ

Most of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ live outside North America, including:

  • Africa (first church was planted in 1954 in Nigeria; there are nine African nations where the church is represented and is probably the largest mission target)
  • Asia (India, Nepal, Philippines)
  • Central America (Dominica, Guatemala, Mexico–first church in Mexico in 1959).
  • Europe (Italy beginning in 1947)
  • South America (Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador)

Only 10 percent of the church’s membership is from Canada and the United States, mainly located in the eastern states, especially in Pennsylvania (12 congregations), Florida (7), Ohio (6), New Jersey (5), and Michigan (3). On the West Coast there are six congregations in California, with three in Arizona and two in New Mexico. Five congregations exist in Ontario, Canada. An individual church with two elders is called a “branch” while a church with only one elder is known as a “mission.” Most individual congregations are comprised of 50 or fewer members; only a few churches in the United States have more than 100 members, and generally no more than 125 members attend any particular branch.

The church teaches that it is supposed “to bring the restored Gospel to the Native Americans of the House of Israel.” Source  These are people from the “Tribe of Joseph, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” who are “scattered throughout the Americas.” Therefore, “all of the missionary programs of The Church incorporate this special commission.” It is taught that Native Americans are literal descendants of Israel, although Hispanics from Mexico, Central and South America are also considered possible descendants of the Lamanites.

In past years, the church emphasized placing new congregations near or on Native American reservations. For instance, the Apache and Navajo tribes have had churches in New Mexico and Arizona for decades. According to the church website,

Missionary Programs for the Seed of Joseph are a high priority of The Church. In the eighteen-hundreds The Church began to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Native Peoples of the United States and Canada. The Church was established on two reserves in Canada in 1932. Subsequently, Native American missions were established in Arizona in 1961 and in New Mexico in 1971. Source 

Even though there doesn’t appear to be many (any?) recent church plantings in Native American tribal locations, this goal still seems to be the main focal point for the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ.

The vision of the church

“The full manifestations of God’s Spirit and power among the Saints, resulting from living and worshipping in unity and righteousness, stimulate continuous growth of the Domestic Church – even at a rate of doubling over a five year period – while strengthening the International Church.”

The purpose of the church

“To fulfill the plan of God by bringing salvation through Christ to all people.”

The mission statement of the church

The church is missionary-minded and has a two-pronged mission statement:

  • “The Church of Jesus Christ will teach the Gospel to all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things commanded by Jesus Christ.
  • “To draw Israel to Christ through an effort focused on the Native Americans of North and South America.”

The name of the church

(Photo: Chapel at church headquarters in Monongahela, Pennsylvania)

Like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ leaders use biblical verses such as Matthew 18:20 and Colossians 3:17 to say that “a church named after the man belongs to that man, but that a church named after Jesus belongs to Him, as long as it is founded on His precepts, and bears evidence of His gifts and love.” The church owns a website domain that the leaders of the LDS Church must have really wanted when LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson prohibited the use of church nicknames in 2018, thereby eliminating “Mormon.org” and “lds.org.” Because “thechurchofjesuschrist.org” had already been taken by The Church of Jesus Christ, the LDS Church’s new official website is churchofjesuschirst.org (sans the “the”), even though “the” is in the LDS Church’s official title.

Doctrines

The Church of Jesus Christ has created the “12 Articles of Faith.” These are as follows (with some explanation of each):

  1. “We believe in God: the Father, Jesus Christ-His Son, and the Holy Spirit”
    • No Trinity–God the Father and Jesus are two separate personages, though they are “one in spirit, purpose, and accord.” Therefore, leaders believe their faith is monotheistic (one God only)
    • God is a “personage of glory”
    • Jesus
      • is “the image of the Father”
      • “was with the Father from the beginning”
      • was born of the Virgin Mary and conceived of the Holy Ghost
      • became man, established the church, and then suffered and died for all sins
      • rose three days after his death and took on an immortal body
      • resides at the right hand of God
      • will return in a second coming
    • The Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost) “is the mind of the Father and of the Son.” Therefore, he is not a Person, contrary to the doctrine of the Trinity
    • Prayers are offered to God the Father only and not to the Son or the Spirit

2.  “We believe the Church as established by Jesus Christ has ordained officers consistent with the scriptures, that believers possess the signs promised to them, and that this Church/Kingdom will remain upon the earth until the end of time”

    • Salvation requires faith and belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, repentance of sins and water baptism, and laying on of hands by the Elders “for reception of the Holy Ghost (born of the Spirit)”
    • Feet washing is performed, based on the example of Jesus (John 13:5, 14-15)
    • Gift of tongues is available. When this phenomenon takes place, another member is instructed to interpret. “The message from God is generally in the form of instruction, admonishment or encouragement to His servants”
    • Speaking in the Spirit is done “under the influence of God”
    • Members are supposed to address each other as “Brother and Sister” since Jesus called His followers the same (Matt. 12:50; Mark 3:35)

Offices in the church

The church is organized in several ways by leaders who are not financially compensated. Although verses are not provided on the church’s website, it is believed that the Bible and the Book of Mormon dictate that there should be no paid ministry. The top leadership positions is the “General Church Presidency,” which is made up of the General Church President and two counselors. As of 2020, the leader is eleventh president Joel Gehly and his two counselors, Peter Scolaro and Frank Natolli. The church considers its first three presidents to be Joseph Smith, Jr., Sidney Rigdon, and William Bickerton. Gehly’s grandfather was fourth president William Cadman. The president is chosen from among the Twelve and thus the position is not based on seniority. Apostles are free to retire and not serve for life, as is the practice in the LDS Church. These men are considered

living witnesses of His Church on the earth. They are to bear testimony throughout the world to the everlasting Gospel being restored and that The Church is adorned with the divine gifts and blessings of God. As spiritual leaders, they should travel throughout The Church endeavoring to encourage all to live righteously before God and man. Source

Only men can serve as apostles. As of 6/2020, there were 10 apostles (alphabetical order): James Crudup, Joel Gehly, John Griffith, Paul Liberto, Thomas M. Liberto, Leonard A. Lovalvo, Frank Natoli, Paul Palmieri, Paul A. Palmieri, Peter Scolaro, and Jerry Valenti. Two additional apostles are supposed to be added to fill the positions that were opened when two previous apostles passed away.

Next, the church has a group of seventy male evangelists who are to declare

the great message of the restoration to the world rests upon them, and they should strive to maintain and carry with them a spirit of revival throughout The Church. The seventy evangelists oversee the activities of its Missionary Operating Committees to ensure the fulfilling of Christ’s commandment to take the Gospel to the entire world.

Elders (Ministers) are males who work with church members and “shepherd over their flocks and ensure the rules and regulations and faith of The Church are observed and upheld in their local congregations.” They sit on the front stage during services and deliver the sermons. Teachers are males who are “required to teach new members their duties and behavior as members of The Church, and visit the homes of the Saints to expound and exhort the Word of God to establish faith.” Deacons are men who “arrange for the comfort and relief of the poor and needy; to visit the sick, and to see that widows and orphans are cared for. He must assist the ministry of The Church and work within his branch or mission.” And Deaconesses are women who visit “the sick and providing for their needs; lending a helping hand physically; and providing spiritual assistance and strength to sisters.”

3. “We believe the Bible and the Book of Mormon to be Holy Scriptures telling of God’s relationship with the human family. These two scriptures jointly convey God’s dealings and plan for mankind”

  • The original translation of the Bible is the King James Version
  • The Book of Mormon
    • The church prints its own version of the Book of Mormon that is dated to the 1860s
    • Plural marriage has never been accepted because Jacob 2 in the Book of Mormon “admonishes” the practice
    • The BOM story is considered literal and historical
    • Leaders teach that the story of the Book of Mormon did not take place in North America because they believe archaeological evidence points toward these events happening in Central America

4. “We believe that divine inspiration is an indispensable qualification for the preaching of the Gospel”

    • There is no paid ministry
    • “Divine revelation in modern times consistent with examples in the scriptures. These are given in dreams, visions, signs, gifts, and His word to whomever He chooses”

5. “We believe that The Church of Jesus Christ is patterned exactly as is represented in the scriptures including the following ordinances and practices”:

  • Baptism by immersion
  • Laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit
  • Lord’s Supper (using bread and wine). This ordinance is done regularly “to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us, that His body was broken and His blood spilt to atone for our sins and give us the opportunity to gain eternal life with God.” In the LDS Church, water is used instead of wine.
  • “Anointing the sick with oil and praying over them”

6. “We believe obedience to the Gospel is necessary to obtain salvation by taking the following actions”:

  • “Believe and have faith that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior of the world”
  • “Repent of your sins with a desire to sin no more”
  • “Be baptized by immersion in water for a remission of sins”
  • “Receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands”
  • “Live righteously, remain faithful, and endure to the end of your life”
    • There is no original sin (i.e, originating in Adam)
    • “All must obey the gospel to be saved”
    • When I asked several leaders of the church what exactly it means to “live righteously,” I was told that keeping the general commandments of the Bible and the Book of Mormon is allows a person to enter into heaven
    • An email to the church provided this further explanation: “Living righteously entails adhering to the commands and teachings of Jesus Christ. It is ensuring that there is congruence between our values and our behavior.”
  • Heaven and hell exist. To enter heaven, a person needs to follow the commandments of scripture, be sincere, and try hard. A person does not need to belong to or be baptized by The Church of Jesus Christ, although it is recommended. While not everyone goes to heaven, it appears to be difficult to enter hell unless a person is really bad
  • Unlike Mormonism:
    • There is only one heaven and not three kingdoms of glory
    • According to an email sent to me by the church, “Those who live righteously will dwell with God, and those who willfully reject God and rebel against His Word will reside in hell. Hell is the end of a road that is chosen.”
    • Families will not be together forever in the next life
    • No temple work is done in the church, so there are no baptisms for the dead or sealings
  • Final state of nonmembers
    • From a personal email to me from the church: “We believe that all humanity will be judged according to their knowledge and understanding of what they knew to be right and wrong and how well they lived in congruence with their values. This is supported in 2 Nephi 9:25-27. God is no respecter of persons and sees the sincerity of every heart regardless of where they were baptized or if they knew about baptism at all.”
    • A laymember put it this way: “We do believe that ours is God’s church, but that doesn’t mean that we exclude other followers of Christ from God’s free gift of salvation through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Salvation exists outside the church, but NOT outside Christ.”

7. “We believe that the Lord God continues to reveal His will through the power of the Holy Ghost”

  • “Divine revelation continues in modern times consistent with examples in the scriptures. These are given in dreams, visions, signs, gifts, and His word to whomever He chooses”

8. “We believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ established resurrection for all mankind”

  • “Jesus’s resurrection was a victory over the power of death”
  • “That second coming of Christ will occur, in sequence to the Peaceful Reign, at the end of the world”

9. “We believe that marriage between a man and a woman is a holy institution”

  • Homosexuality is not endorsed

10. “We believe that many pure and precious tenets of Christ were eventually changed in the early centuries of The Church of Jesus Christ and that God restored the Gospel of Christ in its fullness.

  • “The apostasy was not to be resolved by reformation but only by restoration”

11. “We believe that God has promised many blessings to all who love and serve Him, and that He will remember His covenants to the House of Israel”

12. “We believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ to occur at the end of the world—with the First Resurrection—and that He will wed His Bride, the Church, and gather unto Himself all the righteous.”

  • As far as eschatology, the church explained in an email, “The current earth will be cleansed by fire and then the eternal city that John saw descend from heaven, “The New Jerusalem” will reside on the cleansed earth.”

These 12 points provide a good summary to the teachings of the church, as not all splinter groups of Mormonism are as upfront with their belief system.

Are members “Mormons”?

This is obviously a sensitive topic with the leaders of the church. In response to this question, the website states:

If someone believes in the Old Testament, that does not automatically make that person a Jew. Similarly, if someone believes in the Bible, that does not mean that person is a Catholic, Baptist, or Pentacostal (sic). The Church of Jesus Christ has no affiliation or connection with Mormonism. Many aspects of Mormon Doctrine are not supported by The Book of Mormon nor are they part of our beliefs. Source 

Like Mormonism, the church utilizes James 1:5 (“if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God”) as a guideline and recommends the potential convert “go to God in prayer and ask Him to direct you in regard to decisions about The Church,” even though this verse is out of context. On another church website, the leaders say,

One of the deepest differences is our belief regarding Israel and Native Americans, and the coming of an American Indian Moses (scripturally called the Choice Seer). What’s interesting is that the Book of Mormon (often called the Ancient American Indian Record) speaks of this Seer, which we believe will be a Native American and will be coming in the near future, whereas the Salt Lake City group believes it already happened. Source 

A May 2020 letter from the Apostles to the Membership

A letter from the apostles was written to the church membership on May 7, 2020. Titled “INCREASE IN RIGHTEOUSNESS” and meant to be a general chastisement of the congregation, Source  it remembered how in the previous year

the Lord revealed that He has been saddened to observe the effect distractions have had upon His Church. As we considered those experiences, most of us found that we needed to look deeply into our own individual lives to identify those things that had become distractions to us in our service to God. For the most part, distractions had accumulated gradually without our full awareness

The letter went on to explain divine revelation recently given:

In one dream, a member was told by a past Apostle (who we feel represented the Lord in the dream) to clean his home and start cleaning it now. Another member had a similar dream in which, with great effort, large wasps had to be eliminated from a home that represented the church. In a third experience, a member heard the voice of the Lord listing specific shortcomings that exist among some of the people.

The letter explained how there was “pride, haughtiness, and a lack of love and mercy”; “many are not humble to one another” and “before God”; some “are partaking of the Lord’s Supper unworthily.” One laymember said this letter came as a result of the upheaval in society in the spring 2020, including events surrounding COVID-19 and the rioting/demonstrations over racial issues. While this could be a reminder for the membership to behave during turbulent times, this aspect was not shown in the letter. He said, “God has given many people visions in which the church has been instructed to prepare for what’s coming and to not continue to allow ourselves to be distracted by worldly concerns. I, myself, waste a lot of time on Facebook and Netflix when I know I could be drawing close to God through reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It’s not like my leaders have some sort of authoritarian hold over me.”

A “Church-wide Fasting and Prayer” week in mid-May 2020 was ordered “to ask the Lord to show us all what changes in action or belief must occur in each of our own lives to improve our standing before God. It is our prayer that collectively, we ‘…shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord.’ (Ether 4:6).”

1o Reasons to Reject This Church’s Claims

  1. Acceptance of Joseph Smith’s restoration of Christianity because of a perceived apostasy that took place soon after the death of Jesus’ apostles–even though the church rejects almost all unique teachings of their founder
  2. Rejection of the Trinity and the teaching that says the Holy Ghost is the “mind of the Father” but not a Person
  3. Men who today are considered to be “Apostles” and “Seventies” with the same authority as the original followers of Jesus–there is no biblical mandate that apostles and seventies were supposed to continue after the death of the apostles
  4. Acceptance of the Book of Mormon–including a belief that the church’s main main mission is to convert the “Seed of Joseph,” the Lamanite descendants. There is no historical or archaeological evidence to support this scripture
  5. Interpretation of the Bible is based on the leaders’ presuppositions and thus faulty beliefs are created
  6. Obedience is required for salvation–if justification is based on what a person does, then is it possible for anyone to do enough to gain it?
  7. Everyone who is a “good person” has a ticket to heaven–the idea borders on Universalism (although the church does have a place for the really evil to go to hell)
  8. The Bible is valid, but it is true only as far as the church interprets it
  9. The church holds too much authority–when the leaders send the membership a letter (May 2020) to tell them to obey or else, we should be concerned for the sociological hold (a common cultic tendency) the leaders have on their people
  10. Leaders claim that their church is the only one teaching the correct doctrines of Christ–beware when anyone says theirs is the one true church

Conclusion

This is a religion that is similar in many ways to Mormonism (i.e. baptismal regeneration, an apostasy that lost original church authority, the Book of Mormon, etc.), yet there are big differences as well (i.e., no temples, families cannot be together forever, and rejection of Joseph Smith’s later writings such as the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price). It is a church that could continue to find success internationally but it probably won’t make much additional impact in North America.


To see articles on other splinter groups of Mormonism, click here.

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